Village life has never been easy in China, especially in the mountainous central and western regions, mostly arid and poor, which were once the refuge of Mao’s communist movement. This has changed little over the past three decades. It appears that China’s villages have fallen victim to the very policies of economic reform and opening up that have lifted over a hundred million people from poverty since the 1980s. Many villages, still hidden from the outside world, shrink and wither as more young people go off to work in city factories.

China’s push to modernize has been, by and large, a push to urbanize, drawing 150 million surplus labourers off the land since 2000 alone. Migrant workers who used to send money back home to support their children now bring their children along for a better education and a better future. This mass migration, perhaps the largest in human history, together with a general decline in school-aged children across the country, caused partly by the one-child law, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of rural primary schools closing up over the past decade.

The situation is especially grave in provinces like Jiangxi, Hubei, Henan, and Guizhou. Even though China’s national spending on education, as a percentage of GDP, continues to rise, the Ministry of Education every day shuts down dozens of small village schools—some have shrunk to point they can only claim the dubious title of “teaching spot”—and moves children to township schools to consolidate teaching resources.

For village children forced to leave teaching spots close to home, it means a longer walk to the classroom—for some up to four hours, each way. Few township schools have buses, and those that do have difficulty convincing parents they are safe. As a result, more and more children are simply dropping out. The dropout rate in rural areas has doubled since 2000.

China has long sought to achieve universal education, as well as educational equality. In the early 1900s, the Qing dynasty, rapidly declining and fearing a total loss of control, conceded to some educational reforms to bolster its popularity. It abolished the Confucian civil service exam, which had been the basis for selecting administrative officials in imperial China for more than a millennium, and made an effort to introduce primary schools in all villages.

The Qing’s reforms proved too little and too late. When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it brought with it an ideological stake in enlightening the masses and quickly set about to extend basic education to peasants, workers, and females. By the mid 1960s, however, Mao decided that it was really the urban bourgeoisie who needed a better education from the country’s peasants. He set in motion the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which saw city students “sent down to the countryside” in droves to learn the wisdom of the proletariat. Large numbers of rural children during this period left school to take up more ennobling work in the fields.

By the 1980s, the folly of the Cultural Revolution was apparent. It had left a huge gap in the population’s scientific and technical training, which Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, believed was necessary to achieve his vision of economic reform and development. In the 1960s and 70s, 160 million people had missed part or all of a basic education. To help remedy this, China promulgated the Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education in 1986, making six years of primary schooling and three years of secondary schooling mandatory. When the law took effect, it became illegal for companies to employ children before they had completed their nine years. The government offered free education and subsidies to children of families with financial difficulties.

A year earlier, in 1985, Beijing had transferred responsibility for school funding to the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities. They, in turn, passed it down to the townships and villages, thinking it would allow education to become better tailored to local conditions. And it did, for a time. Many villages, however, soon began to struggle with the added financial burden.

Beijing embarked on a new seven-year plan in 1993, prioritizing education by naming it one of the four pillars of China’s Four Modernizations. The results were promising. Primary education rates across the country jumped to well over 90 percent from an estimated 20 percent before 1949, and the enrollment rate of girls in primary schools surpassed boys for the first time. By 1997, China boasted 630,000 primary schools, more than twice the number it had before 1949.

But the new schools suffered an old problem. China’s rural areas have always had difficulty attracting qualified teachers, who tend to gravitate to well-funded urban schools, where salaries are richer and student attrition rates low. In 1999, fifty years after the proclamation of the People’s Republic, one of China’s best-known directors, Zhang Yimou, released Not One Less, a film about a 13-year old substitute teacher who is assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in a remote village, where she contends with the vagaries of rural life and succeeds in not losing a single pupil. The film’s release coincided with a new action plan by the Ministry of Education to encourage more teachers to pursue their calling in the countryside.

Today, the number of primary schools has fallen by more than half, and the dropout rate has doubled. Zhang himself has fallen into disgrace after authorities discovered he has fathered three children, violating the country’s one-child policy.

Now it appears that the government, after more than a decade studying the causes of mounting discontent in the countryside, has finally acknowledged that it is facing a serious rural crisis, one that could eventually bring about its own demise. Not even during the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), when millions perished from famine, were China’s peasants as willing as they seem to be today to rise up if some event were to precipitate widespread rebellion.

Like the Qing government, the current government believes it can turn the tide by improving education. There are 160 million children in China enrolled in nine-year education, and roughly 100 million living in rural districts. Since 2011, Beijing has deployed billions of dollars to rehabilitate rural education, aiming to bring the dropout rate below 0.6 percent at primary schools, and below 1.8 percent at middle schools. Much of its funding is directed, predictably, to infrastructure projects—to constructing and upgrading township schools and ensuring they meet safety standards.

Many people, however, including prominent Party officials, argue that the new plan puts too much emphasis on bricks and mortar. They say there are better ways of dealing with the core problem—remoteness—than by building larger schools farther away from poor children. They would like to see more spent to upgrade existing teaching spots and better trained teachers. They believe this would help curtail student migration and avoid mass unemployment among China’s 6.2 million rural teachers.

There are people, too, who envision a revitalization of village education through the application of new technologies, such as the internet and telecommunications, which could bring virtual teachers to students in remote areas.

Whatever course taken, the outcome of this renewed sense of urgency to reform rural education will no doubt play a pivotal role in determining future stability of the countryside and of the nation as a whole.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April 2014 print edition.

But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?

Let’s start with gold.

Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.

In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.

It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.

And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.

It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.

We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.

We’ve already agreed.

Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.

Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.

In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.

Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.

This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.

But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently.  Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.

Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?

We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.

What if education was a new gold standard?

And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?

Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.

By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?

Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.

Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.

These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”  —George Washington
Paul Nash
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.